First Congregation Sons of Israel
The First Congregation Sons of Israel was founded in 1908 after a number of Eastern European Jews had settled in St. Augustine in the area spreading out from Cordova Street in the post Civil War era.
Some of these families came from the northern U.S., while others settled here shortly after moving from Europe. At least three families brought Torahs (scrolls of the Old Testament) with them, and the congregation held religious services in their homes. In 1923, the congregation built a synagogue on Cordova Street and celebrated their first service in March of 1924.
The synagogue was an orthodox one, in which the women and men separated during the service, with the women and young children seated on benches in the balcony. Originally, the first floor had pews for seating and the Ark was in the center of the room. In the 1920's the congregation added a social hall and in 1970 they added a small school.
The synagogue has changed in other ways over the years. During the first half of the 20th century, the hard benches and pews were replaced with previously-used theater seats, a bimah was built at one end of the sanctuary, and the Ark was moved to that location. In 1958, the original windows were replaced with stained glass windows taken from a synagogue that was going to be torn down in Atlanta — a gift from the three daughters of the congregation's first rabbi.
In this century, the building was damaged during both hurricanes Matthew and Irma and has undergone repairs and upgrades. The original floors were saved, the old theater seats were restored by a local cushion maker, and the wooden seats were restored by a local craftsman. The original chandelier and ceiling decoration had also been lost. In their place is now a large Star of David, designed and created by a Flagler student, who based her design on those found in Eastern European synagogues of the same era. One of the members of the congregation searched for an appropriate chandelier and found an old European one elsewhere in Florida.
Currently, the First Congregation Sons of Israel is a conservative congregation that no longer requires separate seating. There is no full-time rabbi, and services are not held every week, but local rabbis are available for special services and events. To attend a service, take a tour, or arrange to hold a ceremony at the synagogue, call (904) 829-9532.
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